Once a Roadside Attraction, a Native Burial Site Nears Repatriation

In 1927, on a bluff overlooking the Illinois River Valley, a chiropractor named Don Dickson took a shovel to his family’s farmland in Fulton County, Ill., and uncovered burial mounds dating back eight centuries.

He scooped out the dirt, exposing the open graves of more than 280 Native Americans, many of whom had been buried among their possessions, and began charging admission, making it a roadside tourist stop.

In the decades that followed, the Illinois State Museum turned the site into a full-fledged museum, excavating more than 800 skeletal remains before constructing the building that stands there today. Then, in 1990, Congress passed a law requiring museums to return Native American remains and cultural items they held to the appropriate tribes. In the years after that, the museum closed the exhibit and covered the exposed graves with a cedar floor. But the pace of returns from its collection was slow.

Now, nearly a century after Dickson first began digging, the museum says that it has consulted with tribes regarding the remains of more than 1,300 Native Americans — 286 beneath the cedar floor, the rest removed and kept elsewhere — that are now ready to be repatriated. It is a major step for the Illinois State Museum in addressing its repository of human remains, which is one of the largest in the country.

The repatriation work has taken on greater urgency in recent months, after new federal regulations meant to strengthen the 1990 law, which have put significant pressure on museums to make the remains of the more than 96,000 Native Americans still in the possession of federally funded institutions available to be returned to tribes.

For the Illinois State Museum, that will mean picking up the pace, drastically. In the three decades since the law was passed, the Illinois State Museum had made the remains of fewer than 200 individuals ready to repatriate.

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